Meaning and Purpose

When I moved to High School, I got good grades in most subjects, but it took a while for my English scores to catch up with other subjects. I think that’s because I had to learn what kind of analysis was expected. When I watch a film or read a book, I am mostly interested in What Happens Next. I read quickly and turn pages to find out how the action proceeds, and should the author choose to insert a page of florid prose about the beauty of a particular landscape, my eyes will likely skip over that and seek out the continuation of the action. I don’t have a very visual imagination, so characters in the story become mere labels in my head – “Frodo, hobbit, hairy feet, carries the One Ring” – I don’t start imagining what people or places might look like.

In school English lessons, I learned to ask questions about the deeper meaning of a text. But that doesn’t come to me very intuitively. If something is an obvious satire, I can recognise that – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld astutely charts a world not entirely unlike our own, moving from a mediaeval existence to a thoroughly modern one. But unless the parallels are clearly drawn, I won’t see them at first viewing. If I am asked the right questions, then yes, I can draw that out – but it requires sustained brainwork, deliberately applied.

It now seems to me that many people are wired to instinctively seek meaning in events.

What is “meaning”? It’s an embedded message. Typical human beings find it in works of art. They find it in the beauty of nature. They seek it to account for the very fact of their existence.

Terry Eagleton’s Very Short Introduction to the Meaning of Life notes that there is a deep philosophical problem in even asking the question, “What’s the meaning of life?”

Is life, in fact (be it human life in general, or your life in particular) the kind of entity which has a ‘meaning’? The concept seems intelligible to an awful lot of human beings, and indeed the Alpha Course has attracted millions to explore Christianity by offering “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”; but I feel handicapped as an evangelist because I don’t understand what the question means, or why so many people ask it.

Purpose is quite another matter. The Ancient Greeks analysed everything in terms of Four Causes, after Aristotle:

  • What is it? (Material Cause)
  • What rules does it follow? (Formal Cause)
  • What put it into the state it started in? (Efficient Cause)
  • What is its goal? (Final Cause)

Modern science makes do with only the first three to gain a sufficient understanding of the universe. Final Cause is only relevant for those artefacts deliberately designed by an intelligent agent with a conscious purpose in mind. Richard Dawkins has set out how Darwinian evolution by natural selection creates a lot of ‘design-oid’ objects which seem to have a purpose but in fact have been shaped to fit into an interlocking network of predators and prey by the accidents of history.

We human beings are intelligent agents. We are capable of asking the question: “What should I do?” Are we free to designate our own purpose, or has God already got one in mind for us? The traditional Catholic answer is that we were made to love and serve God, to be happy with him in this world and the next.

In my life, I pursued a PhD because I was interested in the subject and capable of doing it – that seemed reason enough. I didn’t consciously have a God-shaped hole and wasn’t asking “What’s the meaning of life?” But God did appear in my life, and I learned that calling Him Lord meant saying: “What would you like me to do?”, ultimately receiving the answer that I should be a diocesan priest. Yet even now, I have a sneaking suspicion that if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have started seeking ‘meaning’ in life; and ‘purpose’ would have gone no deeper than pursuing ‘what makes me happy’ (which was very fortunately, for me, doing academic research rather than stealing cars or taking drugs!)


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